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Summary and book reviews of The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

The Old Drift

by Namwali Serpell

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell X
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 576 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2020, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis
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About this Book

Book Summary

An electrifying debut from the winner of the 2015 Caine Prize for African writing, The Old Drift is the Great Zambian Novel you didn't know you were waiting for.

On the banks of the Zambezi River, a few miles from the majestic Victoria Falls, there was once a colonial settlement called The Old Drift. Here begins the epic story of a small African nation, told by a mysterious swarm-like chorus that calls itself man's greatest nemesis. The tale? A playful panorama of history, fairytale, romance and science fiction. The moral? To err is human.

In 1904, in a smoky room at the hotel across the river, an Old Drifter named Percy M. Clark, foggy with fever, makes a mistake that entangles the fates of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy. This sets off a cycle of unwitting retribution between three Zambian families (black, white, brown) as they collide and converge over the course of the century, into the present and beyond. As the generations pass, their lives – their triumphs, errors, losses and hopes – form a symphony about what it means to be human. 

From a woman covered with hair and another plagued with endless tears, to forbidden love affairs and fiery political ones, to homegrown technological marvels like Afronauts, microdrones and viral vaccines – this gripping, unforgettable novel sweeps over the years and the globe, subverting expectations along the way. Exploding with color and energy, The Old Drift is a testament to our yearning to create and cross borders, and a meditation on the slow, grand passage of time.

Prologue

Zt. Zzt. ZZZzzzZZZzzzzZZZzzzzzzo'ona.

And so. A dead white man grows bearded and lost in the blinding heart of Africa. With his rooting and roving, his stops and starts, he becomes accidental father of this land, our pater muzungu. This is the story of a nation – not a kingdom or a people – so it begins, of course, with a white man.

Once upon a time, a goodly Scottish doctor caught a notion to locate the source of the Nile. He found instead a gash in the ground full of massed, tumbling water. His bearers called it Mosi-o-Tunya, The Smoke That Thunders, but he gave it the name of his queen instead. In his journal, he described the Falls with a stately awe, comparing the far-flung water to British things: to fleece and snow and the sparks from burning steel, to myriads of small comets rushing on in one direction, each of which left behind its nucleus rays of foam. He speculated that angels had gazed upon it and said, 'How lovely.' He opined, like a set ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In many ways, Zambia itself is the novel's main character. How does Zambia adapt? What does it endure? And for its inhabitants, what is it like to be in a relationship with Zambia?
  2. The first two of the novel's numbered parts—The Grandmothers, The Mothers, The Children—emphasize maternity. How do these images of womanhood compare to the images of the female body that you usually see in novels? What role does fatherhood play in The Old Drift?
  3. In "The Falls," fever-laden Percy grabs Gavuzzi's hat (with a patch of hair), leading Ada to briefly abandon young Lina, who then delivers a debilitating blow to N'gulube, whom Percy later riddles with bullets, mistaking him for a pig. Percy is not prosecuted; in fact, he wins a silver ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

This novel is not a one-night read, but an intricate exploration of major historical and current events. With a lens on Zambia, the book grapples with universal questions. Beneath the human pageant that Serpell directs, nature pulses with its own imperatives; a gifted storyteller delivers an intriguing, sometimes challenging novel...continued

Full Review Members Only (951 words).

(Reviewed by Karen Lewis).

Media Reviews

Minneapolis Star Tribune
n a novel that spans the breadth of Zambia’s precolonial past to its digital future, Serpell’s unbound imagination is often a thing of beauty...Serpell’s range of focus is too inexhaustible, although it is in the familial space with its dramas of loves, betrayals, desires and dreams that she excels. Her Zambian characters are especially brimming and compelling. In a nod to Leo Tolstoy, she eventually offers her readers a lovely kernel of an overarching theme that binds her characters across the passage of time and encapsulates her confident writing style: ‘Every family is a war but some are more civil than others.'

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Comparisons with Gabriel García Márquez are inevitable and likely warranted. But this novel's generous spirit, sensory richness, and visionary heft make it almost unique among magical realist epics.

Nylon, "50 Books You'll Want to Read in 2019"
It's hard to believe this is a debut, so assured is its language, so ambitious its reach, and yet The Old Drift is indeed Namwali Serpell's first novel, and it signifies a great new voice in fiction. Feeling at once ancient and futuristic, The Old Drift is a genre-defying riotous work that spins a startling new creation myth for the African nation of Zambia...Serpell's voice is lucid and brilliant, and it's one we can't wait to read more of in years to come.

Washington Post
[V]ibrant, intellectually rich...After more than 550 pages, the novel is breathtaking, yet it feels like only one chapter in an ongoing story about people who see profit in Africa and who get sacrificed for profit’s sake...Serpell resists the simple efficiency she critiques, and her clear-eyed, energetic and richly entertaining novel is all the better for it.

New York Times
The Old Drift is an intimate, brainy, gleaming epic...This is a dazzling book, as ambitious as any first novel published this decade. It made the skin on the back of my neck prickle...Serpell carefully husbands her resources. She unspools her intricate and overlapping stories calmly. Small narrative hunches pay off big later, like cherries coming up on a slot machine. Yet she’s such a generous writer. The people and the ideas in The Old Drift like dervishes, are set whirling.

Library Journal (starred review)
Starred Review. This stunning cross-genre debut draws on Zambian history and is twisted with inverted stereotypes and explicit racist language that only reinforces the far-flung exploration of humanity.

Booklist (starred review)
In this smartly composed epic, magical realism and science fiction interweave with authentic history, and the 'colour bar,' the importance of female education, and the consequences of technological change figure strongly. It's also a unique immigration story showing how people from elsewhere are enfolded into the country's fabric…in all, an unforgettable original.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Recalling the work of Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez as a sometimes magical, sometimes horrifically real portrait of a place... Intricately imagined, brilliantly constructed, and staggering in its scope, this is an astonishing novel.

Author Blurb Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters Street
The Old Drift is an extraordinary meditation on identity, the history of a nation, love, politics, family, friendship, and life. Serpell's prose is dazzling. Darting back and forth through the decades and mixing different genres, Serpell has delivered an original, remarkable, magical work that both delights and challenges.

Author Blurb Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties
In turns charming, heartbreaking, and breathtaking, The Old Drift is a staggeringly ambitious, genre-busting multigenerational saga with moxie for days...I wanted it to go on forever. A worthy heir to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Author Blurb Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones
From the poetry and subtle humor constantly alive in its language, to the cast of fulsome characters that defy simple categorization, The Old Drift is a novel that satisfies on all levels. Namwali Serpell excels in creating portraits of resilience' - each unique and often heartbreaking. In The Old Drift the individual struggle is cast against a world of shifting principles and politics, and Serpell captures the quicksand nature of a nation's roiling change with exacting precision. My only regret is that once begun, I reached the end all too soon.

Author Blurb Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
An astonishing novel, a riot for the senses, filled with the music and scents and sensations of Zambia. Namwali Serpell writes about people, land, and longing with such compassionate humor and precision there's an old wisdom in these pages. In short, make room on your shelf next to a few of your other favorites: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Edwidge Danticat jump to mind. It's brilliant. This woman was born to write!

Author Blurb Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
It's difficult to think of another novel that is at once so sweepingly ambitious and so intricately patterned, delivering the pleasures of saga and poetry in equal measure. The Old Drift is an endlessly innovative, voraciously brilliant book, and Namwali Serpell is among the most distinctive and exciting writers to emerge in years.

Author Blurb Chinelo Okparanta, author of Under the Udala Trees
The Old Drift is a dazzling genre-bender of a novel, an astonishing historical and futuristic feat, a page-turner with a plot that consistently and cleverly upends itself. Playfully poetic and outright serious at once, it is one of the most intelligent debuts I've read this year. No matter your reading preference, there's something in it for you.

Author Blurb Jennifer Makumbi, author of Kintu
If, as she writes, 'history is the annals of the bully on the playground,' then in The Old Drift, Namwali Serpell wreaks havoc on the Zambian annals by rewriting the past, creating a new present, and conjuring an alternative future. In refusing to be bound by genre, Serpell is audacious and shrewd. This is a Zambian history of pain and exploitation, trial and error, and hope and triumph.

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Beyond the Book

The Mighty Zambezi River

Victoria Falls on the Zambezi RiverOne of the longest rivers in the world, the Zambezi is fed by many tributaries and flows more than 1,500 miles from the Democratic Republic of the Congo through Angola, Namibia and Botswana, then carves its way through Zambia and Zimbabwe and southeast through Mozambique, ultimately spilling into the Indian Ocean. In some places it's relatively shallow, but in others it is more than 500 feet deep.

In Namwali Serpell's novel The Old Drift, significant story elements relate to the Zambezi River, a section of which was called "The Drift" during the late 19th century when early European explorers deemed it a relatively easy place to cross compared with more treacherous gorges, rapids or waterfalls. Also mentioned in the novel, European ...

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